Ego, Where Art Thou?

Via on Apr 6, 2010

@Ryderjaphy Oldsmobile

When you awake, you laugh. – Terchen Barway Dorje

It sure has been one hell of a ride: my life keeps getting more and more surreal the closer I get to its end, kept alive by a defibrillator and a kitchen-sink-full of medications.

When my wife’s gynecologist called Saturday morning to inform her that she needs to see an oncologist, we didn’t know whether we should laugh or cry.

I wish there were such a thing as a real ego, a redoubt, a rock to hold fast to, a higher ground we could seek refuge in—but there isn’t, I’m afraid.

According to Buddhist teacher Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, “A view to hold, a person with a theory, all of this is just conceptual activity.” So we laugh instead.

This doesn’t mean Buddhists don’t have egos or that we’re supposed to be egoless (a common misconception among people more interested in psychology than Buddhism).

In Tibetan Buddhism we are instructed to contemplate what we call self-existence, which is the closest we ever come to discussing the subject.

Take a table, for example. We then take the table apart, and piece by piece we look for the table among all the parts until we can without a shadow of a doubt say that there is no such thing as a table.

Then we have a good laugh at ourselves and enjoy our table for what it is instead of what we thought it was before we contemplated its true nature.

My path began one winter evening in 1972 when I went to bed, a relatively well-adjusted 13-year-old kid enjoying my middle-class suburban life in Yorktown Heights, New York.

I actually thought I was someone—just as most people think a table is a table; is what it appears to be until some tragedy comes along and reduces it to a pile of splinters.

My dad had chest pains and was admitted to Peekskill Hospital, and then while preparing to be discharged, he suddenly died of an aneurysm of the aorta and…was gone forever.

Not quite 10 years later when I met Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, my view of Buddhism was based solely on what I had read up to then. I was totally miserable.

I can laugh about it now, but at the time I sobbed like a baby as I told Rinpoche how it felt to be me, and then I placed my life in his hands. And it has remained there to this day.

When Ngodrup Tsering Burkhar translated my story to Rinpoche, he didn’t respond with “Everything is empty, I’ll fix you in a jiffy,” thankfully.

Instead, Rinpoche listened attentively to Ngodrup, and then he took my hands in his and placed his forehead on mine and said “We will never be apart again.”

Years later, around the time Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche died in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, I remember thinking how the worm had already turned.

That’s how quickly everything changed for Tibetan Buddhism; not that it’s over for us, but we definitely squandered our first attempt at making it our own.

By that time, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche traveled not to any of the 16th Karmapa’s centers (not his choice) but instead he traveled to Taiwan, where the benefactors are, I’m told.

The monastery in Woodstock limped along and the emphasis became the retreat center in Delhi, New York, which is basically where we are today as a lineage.

A friend of mine shared with me recently, from his days as the director of Chicago KTC, the perspective of the home office in India, and what he shared came as no surprise.

After repeatedly extending an invitation to His Eminence Tai Situ to visit Chicago without success, it was explained to him that the old days are gone forever.

We would be more than welcome to visit and study at Palpung Sherab Ling, in Himachal Pradesh, Northern India, for example, but otherwise we were wasting our time.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche taught Tibetans a lesson they won’t soon forget (the opposite of what we think of as his legacy): We really aren’t worth the effort.

When I look at the past 30 years’ history of the Karma Kagyu in America I can hardly find fault with Tibetans taking care of Tibetans.

This of course is but the perspective of a dying man (now with a sick wife) who chose the Dharma over being a better person (“Look mom, I have no ego!”).

I look forward to hearing what others have to say as to where we’re at as Tibetan Buddhists, especially in light of the cancellation of the 17th Karmapa’s European tour.

As always, my purpose here is to initiate a frank discussion of a topic that concerns me—not to be disrespectful of the tradition to which I’ve committed my life.

Later.

Karmapa Chenno

@Ryderjaphy Ego

(@RyderJaphy on Twitter)

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82 Responses to “Ego, Where Art Thou?”

  1. ceci miller says:

    I'm ill-prepared (as a longtime yogini of a different tradition come late to the party in America) to comment on the state of Tibetan Buddhism here, but I do find wisdom in Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso's blessing of a teaching that our views, theories, and our "person" are mere conceptual activity. So what can we do but look squarely, relax and, seeing, laugh? Strong stuff, but there it is. :)

  2. Karma says:

    So. We are not victims. We have the luxury of access to many Tibetan Lamas who take on teaching roles. We have masses of books on Buddhism written by many well qualified Lamas. We have internet which has a plethora of resources available to us to download, read, listen to & watch.
    Most of us have the '8 leisures & 10 endowments' for which we should feel very fortunate. We are taught this is the degenerate age where less people are interested in the dharma & are more interested in worldly things. That we are interested in the dharma as well as practising it is something to rejoice.
    The fact the His Holiness Karmapa cannot travel at present is disappointing, but think how difficult it must be for him. For sure he has more difficulties in his life than I do. Same for His Eminence Tai Situ Rinpoche.
    As for Tibetans taking care of Tibetans as you say, why should they not? They are a society in exile with many struggles which most of us don't have. They are very busy trying to keep their culture & dharma alive as well as the countless other things which result when you are a refugee. Then of course there is the real worry regarding all those living in Tibet. The Tibetans owe us nothing, nor are their Lamas obligated to visit us. The Lamas have been enormously generous in teaching us Vajrayana. Perhaps the issue is that we should be helping them.
    To my mind, you are extremely fortunate to come across Tibetan Buddhism as well as find your Root Guru at such a young age & it pleased me to read this. Your Teacher has given you all the tools that you need, again this is a gift which is priceless especially at this difficult time of your life. I say the same for myself. If I never got to see my Teacher again, I have the tools to attain enlightenment which he kindly gave me. What I do with them is up to me.
    May all beings have happiness & the cause of happiness.

  3. Karma says:

    So. We are not victims. We have the luxury of access to many Tibetan Lamas who take on teaching roles. We have masses of books on Buddhism written by many well qualified Lamas. We have internet which has a plethora of resources available to us to download, read, listen to & watch.
    Most of us have the '8 leisures & 10 endowments' for which we should feel very fortunate. We are taught this is the degenerate age where less people are interested in the dharma & are more interested in worldly things. That we are interested in the dharma as well as practising it is something to rejoice.
    The fact the His Holiness Karmapa cannot travel at present is disappointing, but think how difficult it must be for him. For sure he has more difficulties in his life than I do. Same for His Eminence Tai Situ Rinpoche.
    As for Tibetans taking care of Tibetans as you say, why should they not? They are a society in exile with many struggles which most of us don't have. They are very busy trying to keep their culture & dharma alive as well as the countless other things which result when you are a refugee. Then of course there is the real worry regarding all those living in Tibet. The Tibetans owe us nothing, nor are their Lamas obligated to visit us. The Lamas have been enormously generous in teaching us Vajrayana. Perhaps the issue is that we should be helping them.
    To my mind, you are extremely fortunate to come across Tibetan Buddhism as well as find your Root Guru at such a young age & it pleased me to read this. Your Teacher has given you all the tools that you need, again this is a gift which is priceless especially at this difficult time of your life. I say the same for myself. If I never got to see my Teacher again, I have the tools to attain enlightenment which he kindly gave me. What I do with them is up to me.
    May all beings have happiness & the cause of happiness.

  4. Dirk Johnson says:

    When I first met Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, I did the same thing – cried like a baby. His wife, Jane, was was there to translate for him, but somehow I understood every word he spoke as he gave me the Dudjom Tersar Ngondro transmission. Jane said, “Did you understand any of that?” “All of it, I said” — she said that it was the fastest, most intense, transmission she’d ever witnessed.

    Since then a picture, a memory, or the sound of Rinpoche’s voice can completely alter my mental state (the same is true of Nyoshul Khenpo, but that’s a different story — though my picture of the two of them together in one of Guru Rinpoche’s caves is a prized posessession).

    But Chagdud Rinpoche was transitioning to Brazil, so I experienced what you’re describingwith respect to “the lama afar” nearly simultaneously with my most complete refuge experience.

  5. integralhack says:

    Bill,

    Positive thoughts and prayers going out to you and your wife. Hang in there!

    -Matt Helmick

  6. Sir William (TM) says:

    Tried to post this Bill, but it said my comment was too long so I posted it in a blog my friend.

    -Sir WIlliam (TianMind)
    http://tianmind.wordpress.com/2010/04/07/comment-

  7. Mike says:

    Like John, I can't say anything about the state of Buddhism of any kind anywhere. I appreciate the chance to be able to read, and thank you for that.

    My thoughts and prayers go out to you and your wife.

    Mike
    (@namoric)

  8. Tyler_Dewar says:

    Thanks for this post, Bill, and prayers to your wife and you. I think it would be difficult for anyone to say exactly where we are with regard to transplanting the particular streams of Buddhadharma that began in India, flourished in Tibet, and are now taking root here in the West. I can't help but think that everyone involved from the outset knew that there would be major obstacles and disappointments along the way. But my personal feeling is that we are making genuine, positive progress. We have beautiful Tibetan lineage holders who have wholeheartedly dedicated themselves to helping the dharma flourish in the West, and we have wonderful students of theirs taking their seats as teachers and lineage holders in their own right. We have the traditional Buddhist philosophical teachings of the Nalanda tradition taking root gradually in the English language through teaching, discussion, and writing, and we have strong practice communities developing around the traditions of the quintessential instructions of Mahamudra, Dzogchen, and the Vajrayana. Of course it has been a process that, I'm sure, has always involved difficulties, and we will surely do well to be ready to welcome more difficulties as we move forward. But the seeds are there. They are being watered, and they are getting their share of sun. I think we can look forward to a beautiful garden.

  9. John Morrison says:

    Bill:

    I’m either at the bargaining stage or just an eternal optimist – but I fall in line with what Tyler is saying that I’m very hopeful the garden that at least two generations of us having been cultivating in the West will blossom.

    Like you said, there was a pretty big bump in the road of the Dharma entering Tibet. There have been and will be more rough patches in the U.S. as well (especially in a country with such deep Protestant / Christian / monotheistic / eternalist roots.

    There are a lot of lamas that seem to sincerely care about the West – especially the Karmapa.

  10. John Morrison says:

    But then again – I’m sure you do have a point about Tibetan reticence to send their best and brightest here. The West is more known for steamrolling minority cultures and then selling the marketable aspects of them as kitschy trinkets (Wal-Mart t-shirts with Native American imagery for instance). So, I guess they do have a point to be somewhat wary. But with the right support structure for a young lama, we shouldn’t be THAT dangerous. Yes, if you cast a young man who has lived most of his life in monastic seclusion into the midst of the U.S. plus add a cadre of adoring students that want to spend every minute with the newfound teacher, then trouble could arise, but we have support structure these days for monastics and it’s a global culture – the only time I’ve seen Himalayan monasteries is on Youtube – monks aren’t venturing into the great unknown when they come here anymore.

    And, not to get on a high horse, but why is it that our lineage holders have to look for money in Taiwan. This is a country obsessively focused on cutting taxes and having high percentages of income. Of course, not all of us have this. But I’ve never seen so many BMWs in one place in my life as at Karmapa Seattle 2008. If I’ve got money for a 5 Series – I ought to be able to support my dharma center. After all – what are you getting lasting value from – your practice or the car that loses 30% of it’s value when you pull off the lot?

  11. Scott says:

    I watched "The Buddha" last night on PBS. Perhaps some part of the answer you seek is to return to the source and look at Buddhism with a beginner's mind. In any case, I hope you continue to experience the ecstasy of this sweet life in each moment as life does what it does. Namaste'

  12. Shunyata Kharg says:

    As you know, Bill, I'm not a Tibetan Buddhist in the real sense of the words, so I can't comment on the thrust of your article.

    I will say that when I read "Look Mum, no ego" I laughed. In fact, writing the words out now makes me smile broadly. Been there, done that, taken the wheels off, as they say over my side of the pond.

    Just to bring out into the fore, really, something we talked about on twitter just to see if anybody else here fancies commenting. The idea that Tibetan Buddhists may view us here in the West as Icchantika, that us here in the West may be in denial about being viewed as such, and that Tibetans may be in denial about viewing us as such. Not being in touch with the Tibetan community at all, but perfectly understanding that we here in the West could be viewed as psychopathic/Icchantika, I would be interested in hearing anything anybody has to say about it.

  13. Shunyata Kharg says:

    John,

    I can imagine that looking at the West from the outside, and most especially at its foreign policy, would lead most observers to the conclusion that it is very heavily influenced by icchantika thought. As you rightly say though, once inside the West it must become clear that we are not all psychopaths!

    People are people: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    Chris.

  14. Wendy says:

    That is such a shame. Chogyam was here during a wild time. We shouldn’t be branded by that experience.

    We need some fearless western lama’s that are willing to really make a difference and have a little moxie. Obviously it can be done, just look at Pema Chodron.

    It must be tough though, looking back on that enthusiasm that never manifested, knowing that more could have been done. But I’ve seen a few young guys that truly seem to connect with the western mind so I think they are headed in the right direction. I like to be an optimist though.

  15. Ann says:

    Bill,

    I am curious why you think that things ended badly with Trungpa Rinpoche? Is your argument here (which seems to be implicit, not explicit, unless I am missing something) that Tibetan lamas as a whole think that Westerners chewed up CTR and spit him up, drunk and dead, and didn' t appreciate his teachings or put them into practice? Are you saying that Tibetan lamas are justifying their disdain for Western culture because Trunpga Rinpoche died at a young age? If so, there are many ironies here. Firstly, CTR had been all but disowned by his "own people" by the time for de-robing, marrying a young woman, and for his unconventional views and method of teaching. He was not recognized as a siddha until Khyentse Rinpoche and the 16th Karmapa gave their blessings to his work. He was being badmouthed by most Tibetan lamas and then they wanted to claim him as "theirs" when his brilliance/wisdom was recognized through the "proper channels". Secondly, you, yourself, pointed out some examples of the disdain that Tibetan lamas hold for the West. This seems to be a condition that existed before Trungpa and after Trungpa. There are still many Tibetan lamas who refuse to learn about what makes Westerners tick, who refuse to learn the English and western languages, that are more interested in fund-raising and building up the numbers of their sanghas. There are also many Tibetan lamas who are immersed in our culture and see not only the neuroses of the West, but also our inherent wisdom.

    In short, I am confused b/c in part I hear you blaming Westerners for what you view as a terrible state of dharma here. Could you clarify? Thanks.

  16. Tashi says:

    Dear Bill,
    I think there are some points mixed up here. As an european second generation Karma Kagyu Dharmabrat I also indulged myself long time in seeing mistakes in our western sangha, and yes things didnt really work out perfect I agree. But on the other hand the fact that we live in the darkest of dark times( as the Vidyadhara Chögyam Trungpa writes in the foreword to the Sadhana of Mahamudra) doesnt just apply to the west, but also to our eastern Dharma peers.
    There is a thin line between seeing ones own mistakes in an authentic Patrul style on one hand and being self flagellating on the other hand.
    As you pointed out previously we are the mishap lineage,so do mishaps happen. So what to do? Imo complaining doesnt work (I tried), each one of us just has to live the Dharma he can, as Khandro Rinpoche once told us: manifesting the qualities of the Dharma really being soaked into the minds and hearts of the students is the offering that will please your Lama. I heard HH the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa and Situ Rinpoche say the same thing, so I think that is what we should do. Focusing on our imperfections and ideas of how we messed can be such an ego trip.

    All the very best to you and your wife and thank you for your blogging I really enjoy reading you posts very much

    Tashi

    p.s.: It is a well known fact that Tai situ Rinpoche is not travelling at the moment because India will not grant him permit.

  17. Tashi says:

    well bill,
    who said l was a proud dharma brat i just tried to intoduce myself without writing my whole biographie. i guess a long time is a relative term. Being 30 this year 10 years seem long to me( its the third of my life) for others it might be short, but who actually cares.
    Still Bill- all the best for you, your wife and you friend.

    tashi

  18. gregorylent says:

    and the karmapas get married, move to the west .. and the more tibetan than the tibetans learn the language and move to the east .. every one of them trying to be somebody .. oh well :-)

  19. rheilbrunn says:

    i embrace this dialog. i also wonder who will be remembered as the embodiment of Padmasambhava coming to the West. best to you and your wife bill~~~

  20. Mahita Devi says:

    I enjoy your fresh perspective. I am not Buddhist, though I have studied Tibetan Buddhism and I have traveled to the monastery in Woodstock many times. I follow a Yogic path.

    Your words cut through the cloudiness and get to the heart of the matter –it appears that this is the case with whatever you are writing about. For me, its all about the challenging questions and being willing to sit in the hard places—the places that don’t always provide answers. I find that the most transformation happens when there is dialogue instead of set views.

    I too am in a place of crisis—not the same as yours, but very challenging. Whenever I read your work I always walk a way with a new perspective. I find this helpful. Thank you.

    I will keep both you and your wife in my thoughts as you journey into rocky places.

  21. Mahita Devi says:

    Laughing at “get married and have kids and try to make that work without losing your mind."
    Yes, I agree. Thank you for saying it.
    I’m not sure what magazine it was, maybe Ascent. I remember reading an article written by a female teacher. She was going on about how hard it was for a householder to give the time necessary to deepen their practice and how it took a full-time commitment. I had an intense urge to shred the article and fire off an opinionated response. After thirty years of marriage, raising two daughters and one granddaughter—and not going insane—yeah, that’s the practice—a full tilt engagement with life.
    I enjoy your perspective and honesty.
    Mahita

  22. parkstepp says:

    With all respect My Friend..and I do respect your Path…I truly feel that Tibetan Buddhism ,along with Christianity,All of the Worlds great Faiths ,..as well as the other schools of Thought,,are quietly merging into a One Very Clear Understanding ,of what the hell is going On.Why we are here….How do our different Beliefs connect,and how are they coming to a common Point.Buddha was Christ to me…Pointing the way to Walk,.. Pointing the Way for Us Beings to Wake Up .All of this must have a common Source…and a common destination,,which is our Becoming aware of our True Nature..Our United Path…Our Oneness.Tibetan Buddhism in America is not dying..it is evolving and joining with New Thought…New understandings…It is Being True to its Original Intent..which is to Free Us from this Dream..To show Us all how Beautiful and incredible we Are..Peace

  23. bill schwartz says:

    Stephen,

    My body appears to exist yet lacks self existence like a water-moon that appears to be the moon in a body of water but upon closer examination the result of causes and conditions.

    I may not be my body but that is because just as my body lacks self existence I too lack self-existence and only appear to exist based on the very same causes an conditions as a water-moon.

    When the time comes that my body fails me the illusion of my self-existence will end with the end of this all important condition for my appearance in this world as being self-existent.

    I've tried my best to prepare myself for the moment when the bottom falls out of this condition like the bottom of a bucket full of water gives way emptying the bucket of its water-moon.

    In the past year twice my heart has stopped and I have felt my life slipping away yet fortunately for me enough water remains in my bucket to maintain my water-moon like existence for the moment.

    According to Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche all that keeps my bucket in tact is the merit I have accumulated not just in this but all my life times.

    When this cause is exhausted so will this condition which results in my appearing in this world like a water-moon in a bucket appears to exist but lacks self-existence.

    My bucket is leaking and there is no getting around this fact by denying the relative existence of the bucket and the belief that my relatively existent water-moon will persist.

    It is true that if I fail to gain enlightenment when the bottom of my bucket falls out there will be another bucket of water and the wheel of this mill we call suffering will continue to turn.

    I take no comfort though in such a flow and when my time comes if I've accomplished anything through my practice I will be free of turning this mill stone of a life and gain enlightenment.

    There is nothing to be gained by denying the relative existence of my body and the state for I am done going around and around like a bucket in this water mill of suffering.

    Bill

    PS Thank you for supporting the Elephant Journal and I encourage anyone that can afford it to do as you have and become a monthly contributor.

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